Theatre Review: Waiting for Godot

This entry is crossposted with BlogTO.

Waiting for Godot is the theatrical equivalent of a mine field. Full of starving grizzly bears. Surrounded by a shark-infested moat. On fire.

It is a play where nothing actually happens. Two guys show up and wait for another guy to arrive. But behind this facade of inactivity lies a vast chasm of existential ambiguity. Sixty years after it was written, nobody is really sure what it's actually about. In fact, the play resists explanation so strongly, any attempt to pin down Beckett's intent seems doomed to failure.

So when I read that Remain in Light Theatre's production of Godot featured a World War II setting and the music of Joy Division, I thought: Uh oh. This might be trouble. And it was. But only a little. Almost in spite of itself, Remain in Light has managed to mount an impressive production of Beckett's classic.

Waiting for Godot is, quite literally, a play about waiting. Two men, Vladimir and Estragon, meet in a desolate field to wait for the titular Godot. They have no clear sense of time, their past, or even who Godot is. They try to make sense of their predicament in maddeningly circular language. Their lonely vigil is interrupted only by the arrival of Pozzo and Lucky, a master and slave locked in a kind of perpetual codependence. The whole play is inspired genius, a sprawling exploration of the ultimate futility of existence. So, not the easiest play in the world to perform.

Remain in Light does a nice job staging Godot. The sight and lights are fantastic, providing alternating moments of texture, colour, and even desolation. The use of snow is an inspired touch, underlining the bleakness of the narrative and adding an additional irritant to the long-suffering characters.

For the most part, the performances were also solid. For a new theatre company, Remain in Light has managed to attract a talented cast. Alastair Love had an unfortunate tendency to mumble through his role as Vladimir, but still managed to communicate the right balance of urgency and confusion. The clear standout was Brian Crosby as Pozzo. He was slimy, menacing and pitiable all at the same time, a kind of desperate monster.

Now, about that whole "WWII/Joy Division" thing. This kind of interpretation is tricky at the best of times, and downright suicidal with Beckett. Fortunately for the show, reports of WWII themes and Joy Division soundtracks were wildly exaggerated. Aside from some vaguely militaristic outfits and a swastika on Pozzo's sleeve, there is very little sense of the play being 'set' during the second world war. Moreover, aside from music at the beginning and end of each act, and a largely pointless musical interlude, Joy Division didn't intrude very far into the action. Paradoxically, this incomplete implementation of the production's advertised vision probably saves the show. Rather than suffering through an inevitably reductivist conceptual interpretation of Godot, you're free to enjoy Beckett's words spoken by some talented actors. And really, that's more than enough for me.

So, don't believe the advertising. Remain in Light's attempts at interpreting Godot with soldiers and Ian Curtis don't get in the way of Beckett's haunting and utterly confounding script. The production is visually stunning and competently performed, and makes for an enjoyable evening of theatre. If you enjoy bleak exisitentialism, you'll have a blast. Waiting for Godot continues at the Paper Mill Theatre until September 6th. For tickets or info, call 1 888 222 6608 or visit www.remaininlight.ca.

Photo: Alastair Love as Vladimir and Robert Fulton as Estragon.